Wrangling in Brussels is kicking off today
Gentle EU departure favoured
CHANCELLOR of the Exchequer Philip Hammond said Britain should aim for a gentle departure from the EU, an explicit challenge to the confrontational strategy adopted by the now weakened Prime Minister Theresa May.
British officials travel to Brussels today to formally start the EU departure negotiations, amid confusion over whether the government is going to change its priorities after failing to win voter endorsement in the June 8 election. At home, May is struggling to stay in office as her Conservative Party questions both her election strategy and her handling of a London tower block fire that has left scores dead.
Asked on the BBC how long May would keep her job, Hammond swerved the question. “What the country needs now is a period of calm while we get on with the job in hand,” he said on the “Andrew Marr Show” yesterday. “Theresa is leading the government.”
May’s government is still working out the implications of the shock election result, which saw her Tory party lose its majority. On Wednesday, its legislative programme will be set out by Queen Elizabeth II at the opening of parliament. Without the votes to force bills through parliament, May is opting for an unusual two-year session, to give herself time to pass Brexit legislation.
Yesterday’s UK newspapers contained reports of possible leadership challenges to the prime minister. Tory lawmakers are weighing whether the damage involved in replacing her would be greater than the risk of keeping her in place.
Meanwhile May has moved to quell criticism that she was slow to respond to the fatal Grenfell Tower apartment block fire in West London. On Saturday, she met survivors, and later acknowledged failings in the way different branches of government responded. “The support on the ground for families who needed help or basic information in the initial hours after this appalling disaster was not good enough,” she said.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, implied the problem was a lack of compassion on May’s part. “I think everybody cares to an extent, some to a deeper extent,” he said on ITV. “And some show empathy in a different way to others.”
But even if May can stay in place, her weakness was demonstrated by the freedom with which Hammond criticised her Brexit policy. Having said on Friday that Brexit needed to be handled in a “pragmatic” way, yesterday he said Britain would still be leaving the EU’s customs union, but “transitional structures” would be needed to smooth departure.
Hammond rejected the slogan ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, which May repeatedly used during the election.
Hammond is due to give his annual Mansion House speech on the economy tomorrow. It was delayed from Thursday after the fire. He’s planning to use the occasion to push back against hardline Brexit rhetoric. But he said this didn’t mean staying inside existing institutions.
“The question is not whether we’re leaving the customs union,” Hammond said. “The question is what do we put in its place.”
He reiterated the government’s goals of avoiding a hard border with Ireland, which will remain in the bloc, and allowing goods to move freely between the UK and the EU.
And he said it was “a statement of common sense” that “we need to get there via a slope, not via a cliff edge.”
Hammond rejected the slogan ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, which May repeatedly used during the election. which May repeatedly used during the election campaign. – Bloomberg